Four new plots of land donated to Little Traverse Conservancy

On August 5, a small group of family members and friends gathered for the dedications of four new nature preserves recently donated to LTC from the Reycraft/Meijer/Litzenburger families. Two preserves, Reycraft-Meijer North (14 acres) and Reycraft-Meijer South (42 acres), are found near the shores of Walloon Lake along Indian Garden Road. The other two preserves, Gow Litzenburger East (80 acres) and Gow Litzenburger West (20 acres), lie along Bear River Road. The Conservancy holds enormous gratitude for these permanent gifts of land that can now be enjoyed by all.

Borrowed from our children


To paraphrase John James Audubon, true conservationists know that the world is not given to us by our mothers and fathers, but borrowed from our children. We believe so much in the value of preserving the beautiful natural world we all enjoy in our special corner of the planet.

To back up, just a bit of history. The first members of our family came to northern Michigan in the 1800s from Canada and Scotland. They came here for the reason many people came to this area and stayed: the land and its natural beauty—the hills and wooded forests, the lakes and springs and streams, the views that let us all know we are in a place unlike any other, the incomparable landscape that can be found only here.

Our family has now been in this region for six generations. Yet those early relatives, the Reycrafts, were unusual for two reasons. First, because perhaps long before many people had a notion of “land conservation,” our Reycraft forbearers began to acquire property for the sole purpose of preserving it. Two Reycraft sons, Dr. John and Dr. George Reycraft, were pioneering physicians in Petoskey. They inspired what has become a long-term family commitment to land preservation. They studied surgery in England and traveled the world to educate themselves in the most current medical techniques of that era before returning to operate a hospital near the mouth of the Bear River on the Petoskey waterfront, as well as a nursing school, and taking turns serving as mayor of Petoskey, alternating the position for many years—running against each other, once even standing on opposing soap boxes at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Park to deliver their campaign speeches.

Despite their political differences, they were very close, and both took a great interest in helping the people of this area as well as in preserving the old growth forests of this region—the woods, the streams, the shorelines and inland lakes, native plants and flowers. These Reycraft doctor brothers lived with purposeful modesty as they bought up lands with the sole purpose of doing nothing with any of it. This is to say, they did everything they could for it: they kept it just as it was. Dr. George never married, and when Dr. John’s young wife died tragically in an accident, he never remarried, nor had any children. As if in unspoken agreement, both men committed even further to two things: saving lives and saving the lands of northern Michigan. It is because of these two men, and my other relatives spanning back now so far, that we are able to carry on their mission to preserve the beauty of this place we call home, and to share it now with generations of many other families, with anyone who wishes, for years to come.

In August, as three generations of our family gathered under cerulean blue skies, we found ourselves humbled and gratified to donate four new preserves to the Little Traverse Conservancy’s growing network. It was a remarkable day for us all. These were some of the lands purchased well over one hundred and thirty years ago by Dr. John and Dr. George Reycraft and will now be known as The Reycraft-Meijer Preserves, North and South, more than 50 acres along Indian Garden Road, near the north arm of Walloon Lake, and the Gow Litzenburger Preserves, East and West, some 100 wooded acres straddling the border between Emmet and Charlevoix counties in Chandler Township southeast of Petoskey. They will be open to all who care to visit them, and they will be preserved forever forward, thanks to the Little Traverse Conservancy.

As we dedicated the lands, I said a few words about what this meant for our family. The land carries our memories, it defines us and shapes us as people, and the lands which are now the Reycraft-Meijer Preserves and the Gow Litzenburger Preserves hold so many memories and stories for all of us who grew up with them, near them, walking their woods and hills, taking in their views.

My mother, Cameron Reycraft O’Keefe, and her sister, Donna Reycraft Bender, spent their summers on Walloon Lake at Birch Point. The lands which are now the Reycraft-Meijer Preserves are directly adjacent to this point of land, and were purchased by Dr. John Reycraft in the 1800s from a railroad company. Before that, we know this was a Native American summer fishing and agricultural area. We believe there was one earlier settler, back in the wooded area of the property, who left only some now long-overgrown remains of a cabin and some apple trees.

My mother cherishes childhood memories of walking the sloping hillsides with apple trees, wildflowers and the wild blackberries from which they made jam. One summer, she picked sack after burlap sack of milkweed pods, the soft fiber filling of which would be used for life preservers during World War II. Thousands of pine seedlings my mother and aunt planted as children with my grandfather are now a fully mature pine forest.

Once my brother, Gow, as a boy, dug a small hole in the earth near our grandmother’s house on Birch Point and pulled out an interesting looking rock. Carbon dating revealed it to be one of the oldest hand tools ever discovered in the state of Michigan, and a cartoon drawing of Gow as a boy pulling a red wagon and holding up a carved stone and smiling, appeared in the Detroit Free Press.

The Gow Litzenburger Preserves, also purchased by Dr. John Reycraft in the 1800s, are alive with wildflowers, wild orchids and carnivorous plants. When we were children, our grandmother, Hazel Reycraft, would drive us to this land and ask Gow or me to “Run in and check on my flowers”—she didn’t mean to pick them; quite the opposite. She wanted us to make sure they were still flourishing in their wooded sanctuary. Gow was usually the explorer. When we were deciding on a name for these preserves, it was easy to choose my brother’s. I don’t know anyone who has planted more trees or done more to protect all things arboreal in northern Michigan than Gow. After all, he was the one who would always come back to the car, muddy and smiling, to tell us: “The lady slippers are just fine.”

These are the lands we preserve. These are the memories that shape us.

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